Tissue of lies: A refusal to engage with the effects of mental illness on males is dangerous; what starts off as mild depression or mild anxiety can easily escalate to something as serious as suicide. Picture: ISTOCK
Tissue of lies: A refusal to engage with the effects of mental illness on males is dangerous; what starts off as mild depression or mild anxiety can easily escalate to something as serious as suicide. Picture: ISTOCK

Mental illness is real. It is not a malady made up by the sad and pathetic seeking attention from a society that could not care to shelter them, let alone recognise the existence of their disease.

It cannot be willed away any more than a malignant tumour can. Sufferers cannot choose joy or cheer up (they have tried).

Mental illness is not a choice. Nobody would willingly choose to submit their mind to myriad forms of torture.

Mental illness and mental disorders are debilitating phenomena that affect about 16.5% of South Africans (that we know of), and yet society emphatically denies their existence and the severe effects they have on those who suffer from them, as well as those indirectly affected. An unwillingness effectively to engage with mental illness results in the silencing and shaming of those who suffer.

There is an unfortunate stench attached to mental illness that permeates different contexts of society, and that carries with it harmful myths. Some cultural and religious institutions perceive it as demonic possession cured through prayer and exorcism, while others understand mental disorders as "white people problems", "a millennial fad", and "PC-policing".

Mental health issues are also largely understood as women’s issues. Most slurs directed at women include hints of the feminine, and are generally flung at women acting or speaking in ways deemed inappropriate. "Bitches be crazy", "psychotic bitch" and "drama queen" are well-known insults used to shame women and femmes into doubting themselves and repressing their emotions.

A woman’s emotions are relegated to hysteria, and her expression of her feelings seen as evidence of her weaker nature. It is a sad fact of contemporary society: stereotypical masculine traits are glorified and encouraged, while stereotypically feminine traits are shamed and suppressed. This is an outlet of toxic masculinity; vulnerability is equated with weakness and the feminine.

Efforts have been made to challenge archaic gender norms and beliefs, but there remains a constant pressure on men to be strong, independent, brave, and competitive — traits that are not inherently bad, but can result in mental health challenges when not expressed or practised constructively.

Societal constructs that dictate that men should be tough and fearless allow no room for these men to express other emotions or facets of themselves that go against accepted gender norms. This makes it more challenging for men to acknowledge any mental health challenges they may face.

Men are not biologically wired to seek less help; they are taught to seek less help. Unfortunately, the results find resonance in SA

Mental illness in men is still a taboo subject, with many men suffering in silence, or engaging in destructive behaviour.

A recent US study revealed that traditional masculine traits are strongly linked with mental health issues, such as depression and substance abuse. The study concluded that men who conform strongly to masculine norms tend to have poorer mental health and less favourable attitudes towards seeking help.

Men are not biologically wired to seek less help; they are taught to seek less help. Unfortunately, the results find resonance in SA.

While there is little, and sometimes contradictory, data around mental health in SA, it is undeniable that mental illness is a concern as a phenomenon that affects all our lives.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, there are 4.6 male suicides for every female suicide, and the means employed are usually violent, such as hanging oneself or the use of firearms.

Of those who commit suicide, about 70% have suffered from a mental disorder. There is a desperate need to shatter the silence around mental illness and mainstream it within our day-to-day conversations.

By stigmatising and invalidating men who suffer from a mental illness — or those who show any form of vulnerability — society unwittingly blocks any opportunity for help. A refusal to engage with the effects of mental illness on men is dangerous; what starts off as mild depression or mild anxiety, or a traumatic life stressor that needs support, can easily and quickly escalate to substance abuse, alcoholism, sex addictions, extreme melancholy, and in the worse cases, suicide.

 There are limited safe spaces that allow for vulnerability, and that provide the necessary support to aid and assist those who have mental illnesses. The cis-heteronormative man, in particular, is discouraged from entering these limited spaces and seeking help, since in so doing, he confesses weakness, and risks compromising his right to manhood.

This is the violent effect patriarchy has on those it privileges: it prevents them from realising and expressing their humaneness in all its fullness and complexity.

So, what happens when a man finds himself battling with mental illness, regardless of whether he understands and interprets it as such?

How does he express or explain to his loved ones and his colleagues that he cannot cope anymore? The answers do not come easily, as it requires all of us to not only change how and what we think about mental health, but specifically how and what we expect from men who are struggling with it.

Deep and difficult conversation is required.

Deep interrogation of ourselves, our families, and our communities in how we respond to mental wellness and selfcare is needed. We need to make it acceptable for boys and men to ask for help. We need to make it okay — and safe — for boys to cry.

• Hoffmeester is the project assistant for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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